CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A United States Marine Corps aircraft with 23 Marines aboard crashed on a north Australian island Sunday, killing at least three and critically injuring at least five during a multinational training exercise, officials said.
Three had been confirmed dead on Melville Island and five were flown in serious condition 50 miles to the mainland city of Darwin for hospital treatment after the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft crashed around 9:30 a.m., a statement from the Marines said.
“Recovery efforts are ongoing,” the statement said, adding the cause of the crash was under investigation.
Aircraft had been sent from Darwin to retrieve more survivors from the remote location but no further details on the fate of the other 15 Marines on board had been released hours later.
A U.S. military official reported to Australian air traffic controllers a “significant fire in the vicinity of the crash site,” according to an audio recording of the conversation broadcast by Nine News television.
Melville resident Shane Murphy was fishing from a beach when the Osprey crashed and told Australian Broadcasting Corp. he saw a “big mushroom of black smoke” rise from the wreckage.
Northern Territory Police Commissioner Michael Murphy said no one on board had escaped injury.
One of the injured was undergoing surgery at the Royal Darwin Hospital, Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said around six hours after the crash.
“We acknowledge that this is a terrible incident,” Fyles said. “The Northern Territory government stands by to offer whatever assistance is required.”
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said only Americans were injured in the crash during Exercise Predators Run, which involves the militaries of the United States, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor.
“Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with the three U.S. service personnel who lost their lives, those who have been injured, the rest of the crew and indeed the entire United States armed forces,” Albanese said in a statement.
“Australia will continue to provide assistance to our friends for as long as is required,” he added.
Around 150 U.S. Marines are currently based in Darwin and up to 2,500 rotate through the city every year. They’re part of a realignment of forces in the Asia-Pacific that’s broadly meant to face an increasingly assertive China.
The 12-day exercise is scheduled to end Sept. 7. It involves troops on land, in the sea and in the air.
The Osprey is a hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but during flight can rotate its propellers forward and cruise much faster like an airplane. Versions of the aircraft are flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.
Before Sunday, there had been five fatal crashes of Marine Ospreys since 2012, causing a total of 16 deaths.
The latest was in June 2022, when five Marines died in a fiery crash in a remote part of California east of San Diego. A crash investigation report last month found that the tragedy was caused by a mechanical failure related to a clutch.
There had been 16 similar clutch problems with the Marine Ospreys in flight since 2012, the report found. But no problems have arisen since February when the Marine Corps began replacing a piece of equipment on the aircraft, the report said.
Melville is part of the Tiwi Islands, which along with Darwin are the focus of the exercise that involves 2,500 troops. It’s Indigenous-owned land and is mostly covered by tropical woodland. Its population is around 1,000 mostly Indigenous people.
The Osprey that crashed was one of two that had flown from Darwin to Melville on Sunday, Murphy said.
Darwin is a large city by the standards of Australia’s sparsely populated tropical north with a population of 150,000. But multiple casualty events can test its major hospital’s resources. The hospital has been put on its highest possible emergency alert, which means treatment of less urgent medical cases could be affected, Fyles said.
The U.S. military was also taking part in a multination military exercise in July when four Australian personnel were killed in an army MRH-90 Taipan helicopter crash off the northeast Australian coast.